If There Was Ever a Moment to Seize

Will Obama Stand Up to Big Energy in Deeds as Well as Words?

Here's the president on March 31st, announcing his
plan to lift a longstanding moratorium on offshore drilling: "Given our
energy needs, in order to sustain economic growth and produce jobs, and
keep our businesses competitive, we are going to need to harness
traditional sources of fuel even as we ramp up production of new sources
of renewable, homegrown energy."

Here he is on May
, as political pressure starts to really build over the hole in
the bottom of the sea that BP somehow seems unable to plug: "We're not
going to be able to sustain this kind of fossil fuel use. The planet
can't sustain it." Still, he added quickly, there's no need for any
dramatics: "We're not going to transition out of oil next year or 10
years from now."

And here
the president last Wednesday, after yet another gimcrack
solution at 5,000 feet under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico had gone
awry, and real anger at the administration's lackluster performance
crested: "[T]he time has come to aggressively accelerate [the transition
from fossil fuels.] The time has come, once and for all, for this
nation to fully embrace a clean energy future."

The question is: which one is the real Obama? Has he really been
transformed by the oil spill in the Gulf, or is he merely trying to ride
out the public reaction with stronger words? I think the answer is as
murky as the water off Mobile. We don't know because so far it's all
words -- the closest he's come to specifics is that pledge that we won't
beoff oil in a decade.

Which, of course, is true. Ten years from now, we'll still be using
oil -- many of the people who bought new Fords this year will still be
driving them in 2020. Exxon will still be in business. But this realism
didn't necessarily preclude him from saying so much more than he did.
Had he chosen to, he could have declared: "Ten years from now, America
will be using half the oil we do today and producing ten times as much
solar power." That would have been stirring. That would have put
something on the line.

He could, in other words, have done what President John F. Kennedy
did, when he found himself with a 10-year timetable. In a special
to Congress in May 1961, JFK urged that America commit
itself to the goal, "before this decade is out, of landing a man on the
moon and returning him safely to the earth." He demanded of Congress "a
firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for
many years and carry very heavy costs."

A year later, at roughly the same stage in his presidency as Obama is
in his, Kennedy took to the stage at Rice University, having just
toured nearby NASA labs. There, he gave a great
. (If you think Obama has a masterful speechwriting team,
compare his flabby remarks in California to Kennedy's slightly shorter
gem.) Its core went like this:

"We choose to go to
the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other
things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because
that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies
and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept,
one we are unwilling to postpone."

Now, let's catalogue the differences: Kennedy had the Cold War to
help him, along with an accelerating economy and a strong congressional
majority. Obama presides over a fragile economy, a fractious Congress,
and must deal with a lunatic right that, at the last Republican
convention, came together around the slogan "Drill, Baby, Drill."

Not only that, but the
challenge he faces is so much tougher. The Apollo mission was
technically complex, but in a sense the very opposite of our energy
challenge: a moon shot meant focusing all our energy on three guys and a
rocket, while an energy revolution would mean, in essence, landing all
of us on a different planet, one where we no longer need the fossil
fuels that are currently the engine for our economy. So, advantage
Kennedy. In addition, no organized interest was fighting the space shot
-- if anything, big corporations were lining up for a piece of the

Still, as Andy Revkin recently pointed
in the New York Times, there is "every reason to think
a contemporary president could articulate how this remarkable juncture
in human history, as infinite aspirations butt up against planetary
limits, can be met with a grand, sustained effort."

Especially because Kennedy was taking a flier, there was no one
demanding he go to the moon, and no real penalty for not even trying.
(Lots of people thought we could have spent the money better close to
home.) Obama, however, has no choice. The planet's future (and his
legacy) will, in the long run, be defined by his response to global
warming, which is clearly the greatest problem humans have ever faced.

Forget the Cold War. Last week, new
satellite data
showed that this summer's melt of the Arctic is
already ahead of 2007's record pace. We're in the middle of a Heat War,
and we're losing badly. Globally, we've just come through the warmest
on record, and it seems all but certain that 2010 will set a
new record for the hottest calendar year. Every week we seem to see
record deluges somewhere: May began with crazy flooding
in Nashville and ended with inundation
in Guatemala. Last week saw the warmest
temperatures ever recorded
in Asia and Southeast Asia.

So far, Obama's barely broken a sweat on climate change: a few
paragraphs in a few speeches. Now, the catastrophic oil spill in the
Gulf offers him the best chance he's ever going to get to go to work.
The president could stand on the Louisiana shore and say: "Bad as this
is, it's only a small and visible symbol of the greater damage we do
each day simply by burning coal and gas and oil. If that black gunk now
washing up here had ended up safely in the gas tanks of our cars, it
would nonetheless have done great damage. It's all dirty, every last
drop and lump."

The president already has the podium he needs to start turning
history, which means more than merely pushing for the climate and energy
bill introduced last month by senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman -- a
prime example of baby-step politics. As with his health care bill, on
energy matters, too, the administration and its envoys sought out in
advance the industries most likely to raise a fuss and cut the deals
those cartels wanted. Just as big pharma knew it wouldn't face
negotiated drug prices, so big oil and big electricity have been assured
that there will be no serious opposition to their business model.

The bottom line: if you neglect all the offsets and loopholes, we're
aiming for a 4% reduction in carbon emissions from 1990 levels by 2020.
Make your blood stir? Obama's not proposing real solutions to real
problems; he's ticking off items on a list. He got a health care bill,
and just maybe he'll get an energy bill (though that's an
increasingly slim "maybe"). But we don't need the bill, we need the thing.

I'm putting this all on Obama, even though it's clear that he can't
do it by himself. He'd need a movement to make real progress. That's the
tragedy, though: he's already got a movement. He was elected
with millions of us sending him money, knocking on doors, standing in
snow banks with signs. He commands a standing army (albeit one that's
growing rusty from disuse and a little demoralized).

And it's not just here. Across the world, we at 350.org were able to organize giant
demonstrations last year -- 5,200 of them in 181 countries, what Foreign
"the largest ever coordinated global rally of any kind." We did it the
way Kennedy did, by rallying people around a hard goal instead of an
easy one: 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide which, according to
NASA scientists, is the most we can safely have in the atmosphere. Since
we're already past that point -- at 390 ppm -- we need to work harder
than we could ever have imagined. We really do need to get off
oil in the coming decade.

But to have a chance we need a leader. We need someone to stand up
and tell it the way it is, and in language so compelling and dramatic it
sets us on a new path. On this planet of nearly seven billion, at this
moment in history, there's exactly one person who could play that role.
And so far he hasn't decided.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 TomDispatch.com